In God We Trust…all others require screening for safety. Here’s why.
On November 27, 2016, police were called to a church in Timonium, Maryland to investigate something no one thought would ever happen. The mother of a four-year-old girl summoned police to report that a volunteer nursery worker sexually abused her child during a Sunday morning worship service.
The Baltimore County police reported that they arrested Terrence Smalls, a 26-year-old man, and charged him with sex abuse of a minor, second-degree assault, child abuse second-degree custodian and second-degree sex offense. Even more shocking, detectives that learned several locations in the community that put him in contact with children employed or allowed him to volunteer.
Close to Home
Think this could never happen at your church? Think again.
Consider these statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice:
- Research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls face sexual abuse before the age of 18.
- 35.8 percent of sexual assaults occur when the victim is between the ages of 12 and 17.
- Only about 30 percent of sexual assault cases are reported to authorities.
And from the Darkness To Light organization — a nonprofit committed to empowering adults to prevent child sexual abuse:
- There are 42 million survivors of child sexual abuse in the U.S.
- 90 percent of abused children know their abuser.
These statistics speak to the urgency of protecting kids. Safety must be a critical concern for children’s ministers today. And for good reason. God is all-trustworthy — but people and situations aren’t always to be trusted.
Church safety is something for which the wise prepare. To wait until a crisis happens to create safety plans is too late. To believe that “this will never happen to us” is just too risky.
Here are a few ways to keep ministry safe at your church.
Churches need written policies that outline practices for safe ministry. Policies are only printed expressions of the value placed on children. If the only reason for safety policies is to protect the organization, the church has missed Jesus’ passion for children. A policy is simply a statement of the church’s plan for caring for children and preventing a legal problem.
To better understand the value of safety policies, think in terms of fire blocks in the walls of your home. Construction and fire codes require short blocks of wood to be built into the walls. These fire blocks help slow the progress of the fire as it burns up the wall toward the roof. Fires start low and burn upward. The fire blocks give the firefighters more time to put out the fire.
Most court cases or “fires” start low in children’s ministry, but they can “burn” all the way up the church structure to the “roof” — the senior pastor or church corporate charter. With safety policies in place, the progress of any legal fire is slowed as it burns up the administrative “wall” of the church.
The process of creating policies is not as complex as it may seem. You can take simple steps that require little or no previous experience. These steps are all deeply significant and valuable in protecting children’s lives, your children’s ministry, and your entire church.
The steps in creating safety policies include:
- Clarify the areas of risk.
- Ask critical questions about each area.
- Gather information from other churches or child-serving organizations regarding their policies and procedures.
- Formulate procedures based on the answers to your questions.
- Ask others to critique the policies and their wording.
- Consult your senior pastor, church attorney, and church insurance agent for final wording.
Policies are no more than standards of operation with plans for carrying out or supporting those standards. A policy states what you believe and how you plan to fulfill that belief in action. Include plans of action to take if someone breaks the policy. Spell out specific action out to cover all contingency plans and procedures. Think through all the “what if?” variables for each policy or situation. Make sure to consider employee rights and due process for each policy.
The following are critical risk areas to consider while creating safety policies. As a starting place, consider the topics for each risk area.
Screening and Training Staff for Safety
The process of recruiting, screening, and training staff is fast becoming a critical area of safety. I expect that those who serve in children’s ministry must be Christians who are growing in their relationship with Jesus. Beyond the spiritual maturity of these people, though, the church is also required to do all it can to run background checks and protect the children from abusive adults. The church could face accusations of negligent recruiting if no policies exist for the screening and training of people who work with children.
A church in Corona, California, faced a risky situation when one of its volunteers, who hadn’t been screened correctly, was discovered as a listed sex offender. Fortunately, no one filed charges, and the church removed him from service safely. If he had made advances toward a child, the church could’ve been held liable.
Here’s a sample policy statement about screening personnel that’ll get you started: “It is the desire of (name of church) that all who serve in the children’s ministry be examples of Christ-likeness to the children in their words and deeds. All who serve in the children’s ministry must be (prerequisite qualities) and pass through the application process that includes (components of the process).”
Areas to consider:
Each church should determine the qualifications for applying to serve in children’s ministry. Some considerations for an applicant might include a minimum-age requirement, spiritual maturity, or church membership status.
Do you have an application form? Do people apply via bulletin inserts, in person, over the phone, or through a written form? Does your application process include more than an application form? Are there personal interviews, classes, references, or background checks included in the process?
What sort of background checks will be conducted and on which positions? A thorough background check must include social security verification, criminal records from jurisdictions in all 50 states, and include the national sex offender registry. It’s not enough to run a state check alone. Make sure you are getting national coverage.
What effects will a person’s theological beliefs, character references, background check, and spiritual maturity have on the approval of his or her application to serve in children’s ministry? Does the applicant understand these standards? What happens to people who aren’t approved? Are they referred to other ministries, called on the phone, or personally thanked? Are their applications kept on file?
Access to the applicant’s data
It’s important to identify and limit the people who have access to personnel files. Make a list of these people and agree on the list with your pastor and attorney. The people who have access might include your ministry directors, ministry area coordinators, and church pastors.
Many churches have faced wrongful dismissal lawsuits. Having an employee or volunteer sign a clearly written appeals-process policy, which involves the pastoral staff or the church board, is vital. Who oversees the appeals process? The church should decide whether the children’s pastor, the senior pastor, a board member, or a church staff member is going to oversee the appeals process.
Will you compile policies into a handbook? If so, the handbook should contain all policies, procedures, standards, and mission statements pertinent to the ministry. Having new recruits sign acceptance statements regarding ministry policies at the start of their service will prevent many damaging disagreements. Decide which policies will be part of this acceptance process, when they’ll be signed, and where the agreement originals will be stored.
Adequate training is crucial. An untrained team member can claim ignorance or blame the church regarding an abuse or negligence issue. Will your training include an orientation, training meetings, online video training, on-the-job training, or ministry conferences? As part of the training process, is there an apprenticeship period? How long are the new volunteers in an apprenticeship and with whom? What’s the purpose of the apprenticeship? What are the steps before, during, and after the apprenticeship?
Who oversees the training process? The training process is critical enough to warrant a single overseer. Is this person the children’s pastor, an area coordinator, or an age-level “master” teacher? What does the training process cover? The training process should include training in ministry policies, the mission of the children’s ministry, child characteristics, curriculum use, classroom management, parent relations, discipline, creativity, learning philosophy, child abuse awareness, and emergency procedures.
Supervise for Safety
Two ministry friends of mine recently told me of a new situation they faced in the nursery at their church. A baby began crying and one of the female volunteers, driven by compassion, took the child to a rocker and started nursing him. The ministry handbook said nothing about nursery volunteers nursing other mothers’ children, so this lady didn’t do anything wrong. Or did she? If the parents of the child pressed charges, the church could’ve been accused of being negligent in supervision. Needless to say, the ministry handbook for that church now includes a policy statement about nursing children in the nursery.
Areas to consider:
Have a specific supervisor in each department and classroom. A single supervisor over the entire ministry may be adequate for a ministry of less than 100 children, but any ministry with 100 or more children needs multiple levels of supervision.
The size of the room and the age of the children affect the ratio. The church should set the ratios so there’s an adequate number of adults. Most educators recommend these ratios:
Infants: 1 adult to 3 children. Toddlers: 1 adult to 6 children. Preschool: 1 adult to 10 children. Elementary: 1 adult to 12 children.
Are children ever alone with only one adult? Your answer to this question must be NO, NEVER! And children should never ever be unsupervised. How will children be released from classrooms? Are they allowed to meet their parents, or must a parent pick up the child? Who do you allow in your children’s ministry area? Must these people have special name tags to gain clearance into your area? Who is stationed at church exits to ensure that children do not leave the building unsupervised?
Check-in and Check-out process
Every entrance and exit needs to be monitored in a welcoming but safe way. Train greeters to identify out-of-place people. Insist that parents pick up children 12 and younger. It’s also wise to assign someone to monitor the hallways during children’s ministry events to ensure that children are where they should be.
The issue of adults taking children to the restroom is a sensitive one. Children must use the restroom, yet adults being alone with children in the restroom violates the “never-alone-with-children” policy. Two adults in the restroom may leave the classroom without adequate adults. Leaving the restroom door open with a female hall monitor outside has merit. You must train your volunteers specifically about leaving stall doors open and how to assist children with their clothing and cleanup if necessary.
Teenagers in ministry
Welcome and encourage teenagers to serve alongside adults. Age requirements and roles for teenagers vary from church to church. Remember, you must screen, supervise, and train teenagers like other volunteers.
Can males change diapers at any time? Can teenagers? You may want to take the safest stance — at the risk of offending males or teenagers — by answering no to this question.
Do the adult-to-child ratios set for the classroom apply to the playground as well? The specific playground structures and environment may require greater adult supervision.
How do we determine the quality and effectiveness of the children’s ministry staff? What determines an effective children’s ministry team member? Who observes and evaluates the team members? The children’s pastor or area coordinators may be the best evaluators.
Removing staff from a ministry role
Wrongful dismissal is a common allegation in today’s world. The only way to properly remove someone is to connect poor performance to a signed agreement or policy. At the time of recruitment, the volunteer should sign an agreement to serve and abide by the policies. The process of evaluation and reporting must be clearly written out. If you evaluate a team member’s performance or attitude and they sign the written version of the verbal review, consider the team member adequately warned. The team member agreed to the process for removal at the time of enlistment and has little recourse if he or she continues the offensive behavior.
Which staff members do you involve in this process? How do you keep the records? What is the appeals process? If the person is an employee, the law dictates that the employer must be notify the employee of the process and give adequate time to appeal the decision. The people involved and the steps of the process may include the senior pastor or church board.
Once you remove a person, can he or she ever reapply to serve in the children’s ministry? What about other church ministries? The reinstatement process must include a step-by-step procedure during which the church deals with the original offensive and give evidence regarding the correction of the behavior or attitude. The reinstatement process includes interviews, references, personal writings, and a probation period.
A parent of an elementary child once said, “I’m not letting my child go to camp this year because I don’t believe the camp is well-planned.” It would be sad to miss the opportunity to minister to a child simply because of poor planning. Pre-planning and communication are critical for safety reasons, but they’re also vital for good parent relations.
Many churches are reducing the number of events that involve children simply because they’re afraid of the legal risk involving child safety. Many churches believe the only protection from legal risk is to do away with events. This decision may express a flawed perspective. Today’s media-saturated children need experiences. Children need events that are planned carefully and staffed with caring, confident adult role models.
Areas to consider:
Is the ministry designed so that several people may plan events involving children’s ministry? Can the children’s pastor, coordinator, teacher, aide, or parent plan events?
Regardless of who plans the event, what steps are required in the planning? The steps should include understanding the need for the event, establishing the goal, considering the location, setting the date, delegating the preparation, developing deadlines, making plans for communication with parents and children, recruiting and training leaders, designing advertising and registration materials, reviewing event procedures and emergency plans, dealing with transportation and food needs, and designing follow-up afterward.
Does the same person using the same standards approve every event? That person must consider church, family, and child needs in the approval process.
Are the requirements similar to the classroom requirements? Are the adult-to-child ratios the same? The event’s activities should affect the ratios and the requirements. Are the screening steps the same for all who serve in any area of children’s ministry? Who oversees that process?
There’s no better training than that which is conducted at the site of the event prior to the event. Is this possible? Apart from basic training in ministering to children, what event-specific training is necessary? What happens with people who can’t attend the training?
Church insurance coverage
Does your insurance coverage require you to check with your agent prior to each event? Are any waiver forms necessary?
We have two forms involved with each event. First, parents sign an emergency release form for all future events. Then the sign an event permission form for a single event only.
Communication is the greatest protector of poor parent relations. An event “scoop sheet” should include all information about the event such as the event location complete with a map, departure and return times, the items needed for the event, the event goal, and emergency contact phone numbers and pager numbers for the event leaders.
Emergency Plans of Action
A few weeks ago, my need for a safety plan and procedure became obviously clear to me. I found one of our special needs children on the bathroom floor recovering from a seizure. Thankfully another teacher was there with me, and the child was conscious and breathing. But the question “What should I do?” kept racing through my mind.
One of God’s recurring themes throughout the Bible is “be ready!” God consistently encourages us to be ready before rather than after. Preparation for possible tragedy or action is a wise endeavor. It takes work, but it can also save lives and ministries.
Even if just one of our children’s ministry team members makes a poor judgment in an emergency, the whole church could be at risk.
Areas to consider:
Natural and other disasters
Make plans for specific disasters such as fire, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, or snowstorms — and rehearse periodically. Also, make and rehearse plans related to active shooters, intruders, and power outages.
Inside the classroom, will your plans include getting under furniture, getting away from the windows, going to the basement, crawling on the floor, or going to an agreed-upon meeting place? Outside the classroom, will your plans include getting away from the buildings, trees, or power poles; meeting at an agreed-upon meeting place; going to the basement; or staying still?
Store first-aid supplies, communication equipment, food supplies, blankets, water, radios, and batteries at your church in case of an emergency.
Emergency procedure training
Is there specific training for each type of emergency How often is the training? Is there a rehearsal with the children? Does the training include first aid, CPR, or other life-saving procedures?
Safety is a Concern for All Churches
Since some people think their church is too small, they don’t worry about these safety problems. However, it’s much easier to make plans and develop safety policies while you’re small and then grow into them. It’s more difficult to wait until your ministry is so large that any changes or adjustments are considered drastic.
Some churches tend to take the biblical concept of trusting God to an extreme so they think nothing bad can happen to Christians. Although Jesus does promise many things about his care and provision for us, we must not be unwise regarding children’s safety. When Jesus sent his disciples out on their first missionary venture, he sent them out in pairs and told them that they were like sheep among wolves. He also told them that bad things would happen to them, but that he would be with them (Matthew 10:16-19).
Since there is no automatic protection from evil for Christians, we need to watch and be ready. Accidents will always happen. There will always be unforeseen circumstances that need to be handled. So, it’s your job as the ministry leader to build sturdy safety-policy fire blocks into the walls of your ministry to protect children.
Steve Alley is an associate professor of children’s ministry at Hope International University in Fullerton, California.
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